Monday, February 20, 2017

Six Albums to Listen to in the Trump Era

"Without music, life would be a mistake," Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote. Indeed, music is an extremely powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful. No wonder, then, that people often turn to it in times of strife and turmoil; even people reduced to the lowest level possible have turned to music--slaves working in the fields, prisoners working on chain gangs, and other oppressed groups throughout human history have used music as a sort of spiritual manna. In the worst period in American politics for many years, it's no wonder I've found myself thinking about what music is appropriate to turn to--what can offer the most solace, the most strength, the most hope, and the most understanding.

To be clear, I am not trying to be objective with this list. These are the albums that strike me as particularly relevant right now, meaning that they're all from artists that I like and listen to relatively frequently. So this is a list shaped a great deal by my personal tastes and what resonates with me rather than what I would select if I were trying to pick the most relevant possible albums and a give a fair representation to different genres, different time periods, different cultures, etc. For that reason, please don't tell me that I unfairly excluded some album--but do feel free to leave a comment listing some of the albums you think are relevant. These are just my contributions, and I'd be very interested to hear others.

I limited myself to one album per artist so this list would have greater variety, and have picked out a lyric from each album that strikes me as particularly noteworthy given the current situation as well as one track from each album just to give a sample of what they're like. These are not ordered with any regard to which are most relevant or my favorites (those would be difficult things to decide with these albums). With those disclaimers made, let's get to the list!

Rage Against the Machine--Rage Against the Machine 
Rebel, rebel and yell
Cause our people still dwell in hell...
Now freedom must be fundamental
In Johannesburg or South Central
On the mic, cause someone should tell em
To kick in the township rebellion
Okay, I know this isn't a particularly original choice and that Rage Against the Machine are, yes, so over the top it's easy to laugh at them or parody them, or just write them off as the music of a stereotypical wannabe rebel. But their songs aren't just a bunch of angry, adolescent rebellion anthems, whatever their critics might say. This is an album that addresses issues like systemic racism, Eurocentrism in school curriculum, consumerism, COINTELPRO (read about it if you don't know what it is--seriously, please do), Apartheid, US foreign policy--the list goes on. Point being, this is an album that's a prolonged, bitter attack on a lot attitudes, policies, and phenomena that are still hurting many people today. In "Killing In the Name," the band's signature song, frontman Zack de la Rocha sings "Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses," which, in live performances sometimes becomes "Some of those who burn crosses are the same that hold office"--a statement that's uncomfortably salient, given Donald Trump's history of racism and the power that Steve Bannon currently holds in the government.

But as relevant as some of the lyrics may be, I won't pretend that they're the sole, or primary, reason that gets this album on the list, considering that I admittedly can never catch more than half of them when I listen to the album. It's because--appropriately, given the name of the band and the album--it's an acerbic, angry, battering ram of an album that viciously denounces injustice and oppression and, musically, sounds exactly how it should, given what it's doing. De la Rocha delivers every lyric with conviction and outrage, and the aggressive rap/funk metal sound that each song has makes this an hour-long adrenaline rush. I don't think there's any album that makes me feel as eager for revolutionary action as this one does. And no, I don't think that a violent revolution is the answer to our problems, but having the energy this album brings certainly doesn't hurt.

Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) --Marilyn Manson
But I'm sorry Shakespeare was your scapegoat
And your apple's sticking into my throat
Sorry your Sunday smiles were rusty nails
And your crucifixion commercials failed
But I'm just a pitiful anonymous
Manson's most political album (and my personal favorite), this is a concept album like the two albums preceding it were--and together they form a trilogy, told in reverse order. But explaining that in detail would take far too long here, believe me. This is an album that was written largely as a response to the blame that was placed on Marilyn Manson for the Columbine massacre; Manson has described the album as a "declaration of war." It functions as a sort of polemic against a culture ridden with celebrity-worship, religious hypocrisy, and censorship. The front of the album shows Manson crucified with his lower jaw ripped off--a reflection of attempts to scapegoat and silence his band after Columbine.

One of the key phrases that recurs in some form on the album (and which the tour supporting it was named after) is "guns, God, and government"--the second track on the album, sardonically titled "The Love Song," compares America's fixation with these three items to a love affair. We still see that today: large swaths of the population view any attempts at gun control with paranoid suspicion, our vice president, Mike Pence, is a religious zealot who's backed gay conversion therapy, and Donald Trump is drooling at the thought of expanding government powers so he can censor his critics and keep out the undesirables.

The album portrays a city called "Holy Wood," that faithfully adheres to a religion called "Celebritarianism," that views celebrities as saints of some kind, with John F. Kennedy elevated to the level of a messiah. According to Manson, Kennedy, Jesus, and John Lennon suffered the same phenomenon--after violent, premature deaths, they were turned into mere symbols to be used by the Establishment and blindly worshipped, with their actual ideas and preachings fading into the background. It's particularly easy to see how this happened with Jesus, as we watch self-proclaimed Christians, often those who are thoroughly pious and vehemently religious people, completely ignore the actual teachings of their Savior. And in a day and age where the president is a former reality TV star and a billionaire who's long been famous for being famous, the idea of Celebritarianism seems even closer to a reality than it did when the album was made.

Oh, and this isn't really related to Holy Wood, but right around Election Day, Manson released a promotional video for the band's next album where he decapitates Donald Trump. I thought that was worth mentioning.

The Ghost of Tom Joad--Bruce Springsteen
From the Monongahela Valley
to the Mesabi Iron Range
to the coal mines of Appalachia
The story's always the same...
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
Bruce Springsteen has long spoken out in sympathy for the downtrodden and mistreated, such as in the much-misunderstood "Born in the USA." He has already been active in speaking out against the Trump administration and is, in general, a very politically outspoken artist. The political issues of the day have been major themes on a number of his albums, but this one strikes me as particularly relevant now. It focuses a great deal on poverty in America and in Mexico. The title track, and first track of the album, is told from the perspective of a narrator observing a scene of homelessness and despair who feels filled with the spirit of Tom Joad, the character from The Grapes of Wrath:
Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy/Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air/Look for me Mom I'll be there/Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/Or decent job or a helpin' hand/Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free/Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me.
"Youngstown" (whose lyrics I quoted at the top of this entry) tells about the deindustrialization of Youngstown, Ohio, and the devastating effects it had on the working class there. Especially important in the Trump era, several songs express sympathy for Mexican immigrants, including "The Line," which tells of a Border Patrol agent who ends up helping a woman get across the border (illegally) into the US, where she has family, with her child and younger brother. To me, what this album represents most of all is an effective alternative to the far-right populism that Trump espouses; it takes the side of the oppressed regardless of skin color, religion, or nationality. It addresses the plight of the white working class, but instead of trying to turn them against immigrants or minorities, it unites them in a struggle against injustice, as the monologue from Tom Joad expresses.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin'--Bob Dylan
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you were born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game
Yeah, okay, I broke my "one-album-per-artist" rule here, but Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so excuse me if I had to make an exception for him. Honestly, I did start with the intention of choosing just one Dylan album, but it seemed wrong to omit either of these from the list. Many of the songs on these albums were intended to address the issues of the day, back in the turbulent 1960s, but the issues remain relevant--have a renewed relevance now, even. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan opens with one of Dylan's most famous songs, "Blowin' in the Wind," which is, of course, a lamentation about the persistence of intolerance and injustice in the world--an all-too-relevant song right now.

From there we get the viciously acerbic "Masters of War," attacking war profiteers in the harshest terms ("I hope that you die, and your death will come soon"), "A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall," which ponders the wonders and injustices of the world and serves as a call to action of sorts, and the surreally comical 'Talkin' World War III Blues" (timely given the Cold War in the '60s, also disquietingly timely now given that the Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight it's been since 1953). The Times They Are a-Changin' starts with its prescient title track, also giving us the bitingly satirical "With God on Our Side" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game"--a song about the use of racism by the ruling elite to distract poor whites from their economic condition.

These songs are, of course, interspersed with other less political songs, some of which rightly rank among Dylan's best-remembered work as well, such as the classic "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Dylan would go on to have a long career after these two albums (obviously), and deliberately eschewed the sort of protest songs that these albums are both filled with; he would also branch out musically, causing enormous controversy by going electric (which now seems like a pretty inane thing to be controversial, I know). Certainly some of his later albums (of which there are many) may be better than either of these, but I doubt any of them are more appropriate right now.

Who You Selling For--The Pretty Reckless
They're dropping bombs on all of my friends
Every time I turn around they're blowing up again...
I'll try to avoid it
Try to avoid this
This vulture at my door
And I'm living in the storm
This is (in my judgment) the least overtly political album on this list. It's also an unlikely choice, I will acknowledge. Love them or hate them, every other band or artist on this list can boast of being outright legendary in one way or another, whereas The Pretty Reckless are a band fronted by a former actress best known for playing Cindy Lou Who in the weird, unsettling live-action version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and Jenny Humphrey in "Gossip Girl." So why exactly am I putting them among the likes of Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine in terms of essential listening in the era of Donald Trump?

There are a few reasons. Firstly, Taylor Momsen, the frontwoman, represents post-Trump America in several ways: she's young (a "Millennial"), an assertive, independent woman, socially liberal, and skeptical of organized religion. For her, as for many others like her, Trump looks like a throwback to an unenlightened era that was thought dead for good. I assume that, at least, given that, although she generally seems to avoid speaking out on specific issues or candidates, she has made it clear she is horrified by Trump.

But obviously the band's lead singer is not the only reason I've selected this album. It strikes me as an album that captures the chaos and shock that are reigning right now; it came out only a couple weeks before Election Day, and the timing could not have been better. The first track of the album commands, "when they come to hang you/Stand straight, brace your neck, be strong, daughter"; that same feeling of struggle carries over into the second track, "Oh My God," which plays at a frantic fever pitch while the singer wishes to be anything other than what they are, asking for a return to the innocence of youth. Later we get slower, downbeat songs including the album's title track, which wistfully looks forward to a better future. The most relevant track, though, is "Living in the Storm," which is about being surrounded by vacuousness, cruelty, and violence. For what it's worth, it also has a great guitar solo.

Unlike the other albums listed, this one does not so explicitly examine the problems that led to Trump's rise or that are embodied in his presidency, and it doesn't clearly propose a way forward; but I do think that it serves well as a catharsis for all of the confusion, dismay, and terror that people are rightly feeling right now. It is an album full of sadness, desperation, and anger, which makes it perfect for a time full of sadness, desperation, and anger.

So those are my selections; like I said before, I would be thrilled to hear what albums you think are right for the Trump years (if he actually manages to last that long), so feel to comment. Until then, happy listening, and stay vigilant. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

"Womanhood Redefined": A Response

"Womanhood Redefined" by Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a wretched, doublespeak-laced chore of a read that I don't encourage anyone to suffer through. It puts forward one offensive claim after another, each time skittering away afterwards with enough qualifiers to try to appease anyone that could call it bigoted or hateful. It takes two steps forward, one step back, and a few steps side to side for good measure, and does that over and over again for five thousand words, dragging us along for the entire experience. But I guess I should actually address what it's saying instead of just how it's written.

First, let me address the issue that I, as a male, am critiquing this article about feminism: I don't care. I will put forward a series of arguments in this post. They might be good. They might be bad. But either way, they are good or bad totally irrespective of who's making them. I fully understand that I don't know what it's like to be treated as a woman by society, and just looking at the statistics is enough to give a good knowledge that it obviously comes with many unfair disadvantages. But this article isn't about the disadvantages that women face--not really, anyway. It's about how transgender people aren't really the gender they identify as, and how the transgender rights movement has gone too far, or something like that.

We first get several paragraphs about how the theater board of Mount Holyoke, a women's college, decided it would not be holding a performance of The Vagina Monologues because it is supposedly transphobic, given that it is about women with vaginas, which of course excludes some trans women. I agree that deeming it transphobic because of that is shortsighted and wrong, and that it doesn't deserve to be consigned to some dustbin of theatrical history just because it wasn't written to be inclusive to women without vaginas. Starting with this example, which many would find hard to argue isn't going too far, the article is just trying to warm us up to the idea that maybe a lot of the transgender movement is going too far. Maybe the whole idea of transgender is going too far. Or maybe not. You'll see what I mean.

Next, we hear about how Mount Holyoke is now admitting "men who [do] not have vaginas but nevertheless identif[y] as women"--Vargas-Cooper's cringe-inducing way of referring to trans women. "And that’s fine," she assures us. "Young people who have insisted that we treat those who are different with more acceptance and tolerance have tended to be on the correct side of history." Yes: trans women are really just men, but it's "fine" if women's colleges want to admit them, Vargas-Cooper generously grants us. Inclusivity and all of that.

She also admits that the "realistic aims" of the transgender movement--"access to sex-reassignment surgery and access to hormones...the ability to use the bathroom of one’s chosen gender; bureaucratic institutions issuing a preferred M or F on documents; and to be treated with the overall dignity a civilized human being should expect"---are "easy enough" to accept, offering all the enthusiasm of a friend agreeing that, yes, it is your turn to pick the movie, so we can go Fifty Shades Darker if that's what you'd really like. But now we hit the meat of her objections: "when we are told to concede that womanhood is a construction and not a matter of biology; that surgical mutilation is brave; that men who decide to become women are immune from criticism after they’ve taken a certain amount of estrogen; that expression of discomfort is bigotry; and that the cause of women’s political and economic liberation is somehow hindered if we alienate transgendered women or if we discuss the realities of women’s biology."

The lack of support for trans people begins to come through strongly here. Sex reassignment surgery becomes "surgical mutilation," and we're led to believe that the transgender movement is championing the idea that "men who decide to become women" (to use the author's gauche phrasing) are expected to become "immune from criticism." Who has argued that? No one--it's just a convenient straw man. And, just maybe, the argument against alienating trans women should be that they deserve to be included in the feminist movement too. Isn't that what social justice movements are supposed to be for? Do they really deserve to be called social justice movements if their only interest in including certain marginalized groups is pure expediency? Whether or not women's liberation is hindered by alienating trans women, it seems worth avoiding for the same reason one should avoid alienating any other group of women--a desire for fairness and inclusivity.

Vargas-Cooper goes on to puzzle over how "it’s unacceptably radical to believe that biological males who use hormones or surgeries, or who simply have an overwhelming desire to be women, are not automatically women" and that "having a vagina is an essential part of womanhood." Here is a curious thing: a man whose view of women puts a great deal of emphasis on their genitalia is likely to be considered an objectifier and a sexist, not without reason. Yet somehow it's empowering to view the possession of a vagina as an "essential part of womanhood." It encompasses, Vargas-Cooper helpfully explains, experiences such as "pregnancy, menstruation, abortion, adoption[!?], miscarriage, clitoral orgasms." These are not even things that all women with vaginas experience. Vargas-Cooper knows this, of course, but deliberately overlooks it.

The real problem, she contends, is "a strain in leftist utopian thought that biology is largely a myth or, in college dorm parlance, 'a construct.'" (I am not sure of how many college dorms have conservations about "constructs," but all right.) After quoting an article from BuzzFeed that argues that "woman" is "a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth," Vargas-Cooper deems it "the product of too much French post-modernist theory, not enough common sense, and a blatant denial of the constant biological war women are conscripted to wage."

What is that war, exactly? The war to not become pregnant, from what I can gather. Pregnancy, Vargas-Cooper says, is uniquely female. As per usual when it comes to trans-unfriendly feminists, she ignores the fact that trans men can become pregnant, and that they generally do not want to be considered female. To the question: "Do you only support women who bleed from their monthly cycles?" Vargas-Cooper responds: "That blood is a symbol of women’s ongoing war with nature. They use hormones, condoms, copper devices, and all manner of contraception to deny nature’s plans for them. When after 28 days they see their period, they know that they won that month." I do not think I have encountered many women who view their menses as a time of triumph, but I am glad for Vargas-Cooper that she apparently feels victorious about it. But what about women who don't menstruate, just by nature? What about, for instance, "Caster Semenya, who competed in the women’s 800 meter race, [and] was born with a vagina but no womb, no ovaries, and functional but undescended testes that produce testosterone"? Where did I get that quote about Semenya? From later in the article.

Vargas-Cooper goes on to argue that, in fact, transgender people are simple reinforcing gender. "Trans activists," she tells us, "insist that they be identified as either strictly male or strictly female." Curiously, the BuzzFeed article she was quoting (and attacking) is called "How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist"--genderqueer meaning, by definition, not exclusively male or female. Trans people, she says are "dreadfully serious...about their identities." Why can't they be "like the hijra of India, or...androgynous gender renegades like David Bowie, Patti Smith, RuPaul Charles, or the stone-cold butch lesbians of the ’70s who had zero regard for looking feminine yet did not opt for double mastectomies and testosterone infusions"?

Some of the hijra, in fact, are transgender--and there are (even aside from the hijra) transgender people who do identify as a third gender, as Vargas-Cooper so admires the hijra for doing. As for asking why transgender people can't be like Bowie, Patti Smith, or RuPaul--maybe because none of them are transgender. In fact, all of them are (or were) performers. Transgender people are not attempting to put on a show or make a statement, they are attempting to be comfortable in their own bodies.

"Once they’ve transitioned to their preferred gender," gripes Vargas-Cooper, "it’s considered a serious act of hostility to refer to them by their former pronoun. Style guides for news outlets like the Associated Press and Reuters instruct reporters to refer to people by their chosen pronouns. Meanwhile the New York Times is even willing to indulge those who use made-up pronouns like they/x (in place of he or she)." But this, too, is "fine," she grudgingly admits. "But," she asks, "why such dour emphasis on gender identity when it is somehow both arbitrary and sacrosanct?" No one has said that gender identity is arbitrary; it's a reflection of a person's deepest feelings about themselves. Not unreasonably, they ask those be respected by others. One is idly curious about how Vargas-Cooper would feel if everyone started referring to her as a man and using the pronouns "he" and "him."

She wrongly concludes that "part of the reason why trans men and women take their identities so seriously is the great lengths they go to in altering their bodies." No, the reason that (some) trans men and woman go to great lengths to alter their bodies is because of how strongly they feel about their identity, not vice versa. She compares sex reassignment surgery to a black man bleaching his skin so he can be white, or a housewife who's insecure about her aging body, or an anorexic girl starving herself to reach the weight at which she won't see herself as obese.

There is an interesting point to be made here. It does seem desirable that all transgender people should have the opportunity to resolve any dysphoria and feel secure in their own bodies through means less costly and with fewer risks than surgery or hormone treatment, at least in their current forms. What we know for now, though, is that there are many people for whom one or both of those options are the only way for them to feel entirely okay with their own bodies. Stigmatizing those procedures by calling them mutilation or comparing them to an anorexic girl starving herself does nothing to help those who need them. And it should be obvious that people who insist--like Vargas-Cooper does--that having a vagina is an essential part of being a woman are just reinforcing the societal norms that make trans women feel the need for sex reassignment surgery, so they can have vaginas and be "real" women. When not having surgery leads to a greater likelihood of being seen as a phony and having it means getting accused of self-mutilation, we've hit a real point of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" for the transgender community.

We then encounter the now-obligatory Rachel Dolezal comparison. Which does, to its credit, raise another interesting point. The difference is that I don't think there's any evidence that everyone forms a racial identity by a young age, whereas experts have said that everyone forms a gender identity early on, nor is there a long history of many people identifying as a race other than the one they were assigned at birth. Used here, the example is not an attempt to provoke any serious thought about the comparability of race and gender, though. It's merely a gimmick intended to throw doubt on the idea that we should take transgender people any more seriously than Rachel Dolezal was widely taken, and to (perhaps not unfairly) chastise trans activists who wanted to "disembowel" her.

"Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled against trans assimilation," Vargas-Cooper writes, in the beginning of the end of an article that makes five thousand words feel longer than the entire length of War and Peace, "is how strangely conservative and individualistic it is...Once the trans woman or trans man gets his or her surgeries, has the proper pronoun stamped on his or her driver’s license, and gets to stroll through the “gendered” department store aisle without curious glances … then what? What has been achieved? How has society improved?"

This is a strange question indeed. It's a little like asking, "once black people sit at the front of the bus, how has society improved?" Society improves by letting people do what they want without placing arbitrary and unfair barriers in their way. But, Vargas-Cooper lectures us wisely, "Ultimately, to pass as one’s chosen gender is a selfish pursuit." Which is also "fine." Yes, I suppose wanting to pass as one's "chosen gender"--or simply be recognized as being the gender one identifies is--is a "selfish pursuit." But, in that sense, isn't wanting access to abortion a "selfish pursuit?" Isn't wanting to be paid as much as men a "selfish pursuit?" In fact, what social justice movement hasn't been focused on some group's "selfish pursuit" by this definition?

"Giant collective movements for wealth redistribution and a strong welfare state have been supplanted by a diffuse, leaderless network of online grievances that typically center on issues of language (e.g., the use of pronouns, a celebrity saying something racially insensitive, books read in a college course) and mass media (the Academy Awards having no black nominees, few strong female leads in television shows, advertisers’ unrealistic beauty standards, etc., etc.)," Vargas-Cooper complains. This is presenting a false dilemma: support transgender rights or support leftist economic causes. There is absolutely no reason one has to pick between the two.

She concludes her article: "In her interview with Diane Sawyer, Caitlyn Jenner proudly declared, 'what I’m doing is going to do some good. And we’re going to change the world.' Changing the world is a good project. It’s also a very difficult project, in which details like genitals don’t matter." An ironic way to end the piece that declared that having a vagina is an essential part of being a woman.

This is a truly dismal piece of writing, in every way. It makes no attempts at logical consistency, instead relying on chicanery to try make you think it has a point when it doesn't. Over and over again, it throws out clearly stigmatizing language--"mutilation," "men who did not have vaginas but nevertheless identified as women," "selfish pursuit"--just to declare those things "fine" right afterward as a weak attempt to cover up the clear disdain the writer has for sex reassignment surgery, the transgender movement, and ultimately, transgender people in general. I had to restrain myself from picking out every bit of asininity in this article and dissecting it here. Be glad--if I'd done that, this blog post would be as long as War and Peace.

NOTE: Originally this piece simply stated that the hijra are transgender; I have altered it to be more accurate. Further, I made some changes in the paragraph about hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery to be more sensitive about those topics. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Obama Legacy: A Look Back on the Last Eight Years

It may be easy to forget given the hideous start the Bannon Trump administration has gotten off to, but Obama's term in office actually just ended. He has been an enormously polarizing figure, adored by liberals and hated by conservatives. In spite of that, he left office with an impressive approval rating. But how did he really do? I'm certainly not an expert in the field, but I thought I'd try to explore the answer in detail. Like most leaders, he leaves behind a mixed legacy, with some parts willing of praise, some of condemnation. The President of the United States is, to state the obvious, responsible for a lot, so there are many different aspects of Obama's performance and policies while in office to explore. I can hardly give each piece of Obama's legacy the attention it deserves in a blog post--that would take an entire book--so my examination of each issue will, by necessity, be brief and cursory, but I hope to highlight the biggest parts of a complex and multifaceted presidency.

We'll start with social issues--probably Obama's best area. This is a vague term, so I'll be clear what I mean by it: these are the sort of hot-button issues that hinge a lot on questions of personal morality and the government's right to regulate people's private lives. Obama was easily the president who did the most to help LGBT+ Americans--repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, coming out against the Defense of Marriage Act and in support of gay marriage, and ending the ban on transgender service members in the military. He was also a pretty faithful defender of reproductive rights, including access to birth control and abortion. He was not, however, spotless on these issues, as illustrated when he nominated Michael Boggs, a social conservative, for a position as a federal judge (a nomination which his fellow Democrats ultimately shot down)--or his support of a trade deal that included countries which harshly punish homosexual behavior. He deserves credit, though, for ending the ban on taxpayer dollars funding embryonic stem cell research, and signing a law that reduced (though by no means eliminated) the unfair and discriminatory disparity in the legal treatment of crack cocaine compared to power cocaine. 

However, he devoted a great deal of resources to cracking down on marijuana, including medical marijuana, for no decent reason. His soft attitude toward medical marijuana during the 2008 campaign was abandoned after he was in office, and, according to Rolling Stone, he "quietly unleashed a multi­agency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush." On the other hand, later in his second term, he did become generous in giving commutations and pardons, many to nonviolent drug offenders--and he did tolerate, even protect, legal marijuana in states that chose to legalize it. On the issue of the death penalty, he offered some comments in the right direction and a couple last-minute commutations, but not much else. Obama has a pretty checkered record on social issues, when it's all said and done. 

I am honestly pretty repulsed by Obama's record on foreign policy, but he's in good company in that respect, I suppose. If I were to grade him on absolute terms in this area, he would easily have an F. But if I were grading on a curve, I'd have to give him maybe a C, because there are too many presidents who have much more horrific records. But make no mistake: Obama's foreign policy was awful, on the whole. Increasing our troop presence in the hopeless war in Afghanistan (before finally drawing it down), attempting to extend our troop presence in Iraq beyond Bush's deadline, unleashing a chilling program of international assassination with the drone war, arming Saudi Arabia as they mercilessly, indiscriminately bombed Yemen, proceeding to send troops back into Iraq once ISIS emerged as a threat--and, lest we forget, turning Libya into a pit of violence of mayhem by intervening in their revolution. Obama's terms look a lot like a continuation of the Bush years, though thankfully he did nothing remotely on par with Bush's invasion of Iraq. The summary execution of Osama bin Laden was widely celebrated, but it put us disturbingly close to war with Pakistan, and violated basic rules of war.

The bright spots here are relatively few. But they're not insignificant. While Obama intervened far too much in the Syrian civil war (which most Americans don't seem to know about), he at least didn't let himself be pushed into the sort of military action that neocons like Lindsey Graham and John McCain have been drooling over for years. I know of many, including progressives, who are angry at him because he didn't enforce his "red line," but his mistake was drawing the line in the first place. Launching strikes against the Assad regime would have been illegal and would have helped create a power vacuum to the benefit of groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, if history can be any guide. Obama also deserves some credit for the Iran deal, although, in reality, there should have been no sanctions against Iran in the first place--its alleged crime being the violation of a treaty that our ally Israel never signed and that the US has ignored when convenient. We can be glad, too, for the thaw in relations in Cuba that he presided over, moving away from a nonsensical Cold War policy that had been a cruel and pointless farce from the start.

There was a clear rift between Obama and Israel's right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with the Obama administration sometimes criticizing the actions of the Israeli government and ultimately allowing a UN security council resolution condemning Israel's illegal settlements to pass--after vetoing a similar resolution in 2011. But in spite of his clear distaste for Netanyahu, Obama has done little to combat the Israeli government's increasing extremism and brutality. Instead, he's continued to give them military aid, enabling their viciousness.

Immigration was another grim area for the Obama administration. Not only did he preside over a record number of deportations, he responded to the influx of immigrants in 2014--many of whom were fleeing violence in their home countries--by opening detention centers specifically designed to hold families, to the condemnation of both human rights groups and congressional Democrats. 

On economic policy, we have, of course, one of Obama's signature accomplishments, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. "Obamacare"--a moniker that the Republicans came up with to demonize the bill, but which everyone now seems to use. "Obamacare" is now under attack from the new administration and Congress, of course, threatening to undo a major part of the Obama legacy. The law was intended to address the fact that America's healthcare system was an international scandal (it still is), with us spending more and getting less than other comparably developed nations. The ACA did not fix the problems with the American healthcare system, though it marked a step in the right direction--protecting people with pre-existing conditions, expanding Medicaid, and offering to subsidize poor Americans so they can purchase health insurance. It appears to have also slowed the growth rate of healthcare costs--while it is a flawed piece of legislation and there are clear issues emerging with it, as insurance companies withdraw from insurance exchanges, it is worth defending from any attempt at rollback.

While the law was still being crafted, Obama cut a deal with the for-profit hospital lobby to abandon the public option that had been proposed, and was part of the bill passed by the House. The public option would have let people buy health insurance straight from the government--which, of course, threatened the insurance industry because the government would have no need to make a profit, so they might well be driven out of business by the competition. Obama's surrender to a powerful industry marks a recurring element of his economic policy, sadly.

Another major piece of economic legislation passed under Obama, Dodd-Frank, has proven to be almost completely toothless. The biggest banks are bigger than they were before the recession--this was the problem that the law was supposed to address, and it has clearly failed in large measure. Obama bailed out the banks upon coming into office, giving them essentially a no-strings-attached rescue from the havoc they'd wreaked on the economy, while the rest of America floundered. He reappointed Bush's Chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, who happily handed out loans to big banks at almost a zero percent interest rate--he handed them out so readily, in fact, that some of the banks may have used their loans to buy bonds from the government, meaning that they managed to make money off of loans that were supposed to be saving their asses. His stimulus bill did some good for the economy, but was far too modest--one part of his repeated failure to push for bold enough action to deal with the effects and aftermath of the Great Recession.

Obama showed little commitment, if any, to protecting the tattered legacy of the New Deal, enacting a cut to food stamps and praising it as a bipartisan accomplishment, and readily offering up a cut to Social Security. His relentless push for the enactment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership--a neoliberal trade deal that would allow corporations to sue governments for environmental and labor laws, and would hike prices on prescription drugs in poor countries, among other awful consequences--is just one of the many examples of him working for the benefit of Big Business and against the interests of basically everyone else.

The issue of civil liberties is another dismal field for the Obama administration. Journalist James Risen deemed him the "greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation"--and no wonder, given his merciless war on whistleblowers, leaning heavily on a nearly century-old, World War I-era law to prosecute more leakers than every preceding president combined; not to mention other unseemly incidents, like the suggestion that a journalist was a criminal co-conspirator in one leak case, and spying on AP reporters. The Obama administration also defended, in court, an interpretation of the USA PATRIOT ACT that prohibited the Humanitarian Law Project from giving government-blacklisted terrorist groups counsel on how to nonviolently resolve conflicts (yes, the HLP wanted to help a terrorist group learn how to solve problems without resorting to violence--and the government told them they couldn't), a grave infringement on the First Amendment that most of the Supreme Court's liberals--including Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's own appointee--opposed.

Then, of course, there were the NSA programs revealed in detail by Edward Snowden, begun under Bush but continued and expanded under Obama--flagrantly disregardful of the Fourth Amendment and the right to privacy. After the outrage that erupted over the programs when they were revealed, Obama ultimately supported some largely superficial reforms to NSA programs in a bill called the USA Freedom Act, but seems pretty happy to have them largely kept them in place. Obama's Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, warned about the supposed threat to the country posed by the imminent expiration of the section of the PATRIOT Act used to justify the NSA bulk metadata collection program. Throw in other ugly details like the National Defense Authorization Act passed in 2011--codifying the practice of unconstitutional indefinite detention--and you see the miserable legacy Obama leaves behind in this area. Noam Chomsky stated that Obama's attacks on civil liberties "go well beyond anything I would have anticipated, and they don't seem easy to explain."

Obama's last-minute commutation of most of Chelsea Manning's sentence was one major departure from him usual policy toward whistleblowers, and a very welcome one at that. Another welcome exception to his largely draconian "national security" approach was his major reduction in the number of prisoners held in Gitmo, from well over 200 to about 40--but we can't, and shouldn't, forget that he pledged to close Gitmo, and never did so. He may blame Congress--and they were no help--but he certainly did not do all he could to close Guantanamo, or ensure its prisoners be given fair trials, as they're entitled to.

But I've known for a while I would miss Obama, despite the many, many problems with his presidency. I knew it as soon as it was clear our candidates in 2016 were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton--on the one hand a spectacularly insincere party hack whose idea of a fun time was blowing other countries to smithereens, on the other some sort of roaring, incoherent fascist gorilla that only understood brute force and that "If it won't salute, stomp it" (to borrow Hunter S. Thompson's useful description of the Hammerhead Ethic that I discussed in my last post). Both were worse than Obama in the way they were likely to govern, and neither could quite manage to come off as a real human being, as he could. Whenever she tried, Clinton came off like the worst actor in some made-for-TV movie from twenty years ago, and Trump never pretended to be anything but a living bulldozer, bent only on destroying whatever was in his way, with no qualms about breaking bones or drawing blood. With the American Nightmare that is the Trump administration now going at full force, I can only imagine I'll find myself missing Obama more each day.